Game 9 Preview: @ Cincinnati

On the Browns: It’s been interesting to see the response to the Tampa game… I wish I could say that it was pleasing. In the last three weeks:

  • The Browns played two winless team and a 1-6 club
  • They had:
    • One close game: The 22-17 win over Tampa (anything by 7 points or less is close)
    • One decisive game: The 23-13 win over Oakland (a decisive win 8-14 points– more than one score but less than two)
    • One blowout game: The 24-6 loss to Jacksonville (15 points or more is a blowout)
  • The Browns were losing two games at the end of three quarters– and ahead by only three points in the other. They were up 9-6 against Oakland and losing 10-6 to Jacksonville and 17-16 to Tampa.

To make matters more depressing, Jacksonville has lost both games since beating the Browns– 27-13 to Miami, and  33-23 in Cincinnati. Oakland also lost… although you could call 30-24 in Seattle a moral victory.

In his “Always look on the bright side of life” posts, Terry Pluto wrote

They are 5-3 for the first time since 2007. They are 5-3 in a season where many experts thought five victories would be the final total.

The problem with this logic: In the NFL, which plays only 16 games, strength of schedule isn’t evenly distributed. As a result, streaks are often meaningless, because the NFL can stick a slew of bad teams in a row, followed by a series of strong teams.

As I noted in the First Impressions (and only, since it’s a short week) of the game:

In my 2011 season preview, I looked at the schedule and noted that:

* Pat Shurmur, after 10 games, would be seen as one of the NFL’s top young coaches, because the Browns (who had all the easy games early) would have 4-6 wins.

* The Browns would end the year going 1-5 and people would be calling for his head (they went 0-6; I thought they would win the Arizona game, which they certainly could have; they lost in overtime.).

Sportswriters wracked their little brains trying to to find an explanation for something that was obvious months in advance

Unfortunately for Terry, he’s decided to double down, by predicting 8-8. This means, most likely, that he gets to write that he was wrong twice– first in this column and at the end of the year when he has to eat the 8-8 prediction.

The Browns obviously could improve over the next eight games. Of the rookies they drafted, only LG Joel Bitonio is playing well. If CBs Justin Gilbert & Pierre Desir or LB Chris Kirksey begins to play better, the defense could take a big step forward. Similarly RB Terrance West could come on in a rush and singlehandedly eliminate the running game issues.

Also, one or more of the opponents they have scheduled could have an injury or a collapse and lose a game that they currently project to win.

But, based on how they’re playing right now, I don’t see any wins in the last eight games

On their Opponent: Since the Steelers and Ravens have become highly erratic, the Cincinnati Bengals have taken their place as the prototype AFC North “grind it out” team. The Bengals, who went 11-5 a year ago, are 5-2-1 after eight games. Counting a tie as half a win, that’s exactly on pace.

Like those old AFC North teams, the Bengals have been entirely predictable with their results:

  • Wins: Four of the five wins have come against teams the Browns have already faced. Baltimore twice (23-16 on the road and 27-24 at home), Jacksonville 33-23, and Tennessee 33-7,. In each case, their performance was better than Cleveland’s. (The other win was Atlanta 24-10. )
  • Losses: Both losses came on the road, to teams that not only made the playoffs, but won the first game: New England 43-17 and Indianapolis 27-0.
  • Tie: Carolina has been very erratic this year. This game was one of their good weeks for the offense and bad weeks for the defense: 37-37

What is even more impressive is that the Bengals have managed to withstand two devastating losses that have been generally overlooked. Jay Gruden, who ran the offense from 2011-13, is now coaching the Redskins. Mike Zimmer, who ran the defense for six years, is in Minnesota.

Replacing two guys who run the units normally produces chaos. It’s not surprising that both the offense (24.2 points a game; down from 26.9) and defense (23.4 points per game up from 19.1) are struggling a bit.

Also, TE Tyler Eifert (their #1 pick in 2013) and T Andre Smith (#1 in 2009) have missed every game but one this year. Pro Bowl LB Vontaze Burfict will miss his second straight game and and DB Leon Hall will miss the game. RB Giovanni Bernard and LB Rey Maualauga are both doubtful, meaning there is a 75% chance they miss tonight’s game.

Yet the Bengals persevere. #2 pick Jeremy Hill has stepped up at RB; WR A.J. Green has missed four games, but Mohamed Sanu has stepped up. QB Andy Dalton isn’t my favorite player; he is not throwing as often or doing as well as last year. But he does make many routine plays and some good ones.

The defense still swarms; T Carlos Dunlap is still its best player.

Projection: The only reason to think the Browns will win is that Brian Hoyer led them to a 17-6 upset a year ago, and the Browns jumped out to a 13-0 leat before losing 41-20.

But those games were with a different offensive system and with both Puff Gordon and Poke Cameron were 100%. The Browns don’t have those receivers and also won’t have Andrew Hawkins, their #1 receiver.

The defense represents the Browns’ best chance for a win. FS Tashaun Gipson has 6 interceptions (for 158 yards and a score) and 7 passes tipped this year; CB Joe Haden has 3 INTs for 58 yards and a TD against Cincinnati LB Karlos Dansby has played well; SS Donte Whitner is declining only a bit.

Dalton has struggled– only 8 TD passes and 6 INTs this year. If Cleveland can scare up a pass rush (though LB Paul Kruger had no sacks against them in 2013), they can maybe hold the Bengals in check.

But that still requires them to score– something they haven’t done much of in the last three games, until some very bad teams handed them some opportunities late in the game.

This is not as even a match as it appears. As a result of the two blowout losses, Cincinnati (194 points scored, 187 points allowed, +7 in points) looks like a weaker team that the Browns (185-169, or +16).

If you put the Browns in against Indianapolis and New England, I’d see them losing by worse than the 70-17 the Bengals managed. Cincinnati has performed better against their three common opponents:

  • Cincinnati: 3-0 and 96-54 (+42) on points
  • Cleveland: 1-2 and 56-85 (-19) on points

I think that will be a much better reflection of the outcome. The Browns could, needless to say, take a huge step up in level of play on their first primetime game that means something. But I expect them to lay an egg: Cincinnati 28-6


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